Oh what a difference a year makes. Last year, Monsanto's (NYSE: MON ) cash cow -- its herbicide Roundup -- was lying in the pasture half-dead. This year, it's still an old cow, but at least it's standing and producing a little milk.
Monsanto's strategy of not competing with cheap generic versions of Roundup on price seems to be working. In the third fiscal quarter, the agricultural productivity division, which includes Roundup, jumped 57%. The gross profit of $249 million in the third quarter is only a third of what the segment posted back in 2008, but it sure beats the loss on selling agricultural productivity items that the segment registered in the third quarter of last year.
While it's nice to see things turned around, investors shouldn't focus on the Roundup business. We're not likely to see that kind of growth, or maybe any growth, in Roundup next year.
The future of Monsanto is its seeds business, which posted solid gains of its own. Seed sales jumped 21% in the third quarter, but more importantly, gross profit for the segment was up 44%. That suggests that Monsanto has been able to command higher prices for its seeds. Part of the increase likely came from increases in crop prices; everyone from fertilizer maker PotashCorp (NYSE: POT ) to equipment maker Deere (NYSE: DE ) can raise prices when farmers are making more. But it also signals that the company's premium seeds, SmartStax, which combine multiple traits into a single seed, are taking off.
Monsanto has always maintained that the higher yields of the SmartStax seeds justify the cost, but it needs farmers to try out the new seeds to convince them that higher yields really can be had. With the first step of its two-step plan in place, Monsanto just needs the seeds to work their magic and produce higher yields to stay competitive with rivals DuPont (NYSE: DD ) and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT ) and continue growing into next year.
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